State of Your Union: Is Our Relationship "Normal"?

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The number of stressors has multiplied exponentially: traffic, money, success, work/life balance, the economy, the environment, parenting, family conflict, relationships, disease. As the nature of human life has become far more complicated, our ancient stress response hasn't been able to keep up.

Andrew Bernstein was definitely onto something with that quote since almost everybody I talk to whether it's in a personal or professional capacity has questions about their personal relationships. The short response to the general question of, "Is this normal?" is that we live in interesting times, and on the one hand, we are enjoying freedom that previous generations have died and killed for, but on the other hand, with more "options" there's more gray area for anyone going through a major life transition. Even though most of us resist someone else putting us in a box, it's hard to shake the desire to define yourself by simple categories that won't raise further questions.
In addition to all the questions I get from clients (the mental health equivalent of "there's something 'down there' for doctors") I also saw a couple of articles pop up this week that made me think, "Wow. Things have gotten complicated." First, have you ever wondered how people in polyamorous relationships manage everything they have going on? I do. That sounds complicated. As it turns out, there's an app for that. Actually, when I went hunting for the original article, it turns out that multiple apps exist for that, but The Poly Life app caught my attention because it's based on mapping out the ways people feel "bonded" to each other. It even takes family structure for the poly life into account. The other article that made me scratch my head was 12 Signs It's Emotional Infidelity. Thanks to the wonders of mobile technology, the ways to cheat are evolving at about the same pace as the ways for college men to access porn. Of course, since many of us have, and cherish, friends of the opposite sex, it's kind of scary to step back and ask, "If my buddy is the first person I want to share this random thing from my day with, does that mean I'm cheating?"
The way I see relationships is healthy ones bring out the best of who you are; unhealthy ones bring out the worst of you and take away from who you want to be. The late Madeleine L'Engle has a beautiful section in A Circle of Quiet about how to know you can trust the love you have with someone. The simple version of her lovely words is if the relationship makes you feel stronger and empowered to reach your goals and share your gifts with others, then it's a good relationship. If you find yourself isolating from others or straying from the path you would like to follow, that's a danger sign. What that means in practical terms of how you find love in this world is up to you, and I don't think anyone has the ability to make absolute declarations on that.

Also, views on relationships and how they are formed can change so rapidly. For example, in the 1990s, online dating was just starting, and I remember it being stereotyped as the last resort for middle aged singles post-divorce. Now, it's almost more unusual if you're single and don't use an online dating service. Of course, these days, the question isn't "Do you use an online dating service?" but "Which online dating service do you use?" Aziz Ansari probably influenced my opinion on OK Cupid a bit too much in his sketch on dating sites in Buried Alive, but, as we know, different dating sites have different reputations in terms of what the typical user is looking for.
Speaking of relationships, the nature of what even constitutes a romantic relationship now is questionable. While it's unusual these days to see someone marry a high school sweetheart, it's not unusual to see someone go from a series of "hook-ups" to settling down with someone.
So, are these new forms of mating and dating just signs of the times or are they signs of neurosis? My take as a counselor is it really depends on why someone makes certain choices in relationships. Is it a natural preference or is it an effort to get reassurance and/or avoid intimacy? Love and sex take work to be satisfying in the long run. That's not unusual, but most of the time, those relationships should be enriching your life. If they aren't, it may be time to talk through what's going on. Otherwise, it's different strokes for different folks, and that's okay.


Amy Armstrong is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Master Career Counselor in Westfield. She works with teens and adults on life transitions of all kinds whether it's going from one type of career to another, or learning to cope with anxiety and depression. She is also trained in Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) for clients who have survived traumatic experiences. Evening and weekend appointments are available. She also accepts most major insurance plans and credit cards.
For more information, please visit, call (908) 913-0581 or email

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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